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On July 15, the Bureau of Land Management started rounding up wild horses on land between Rangely and Meeker in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area, or PEDHMA.
The ongoing roundup, or what the BLM calls a “gather,” was originally set for September, but BLM officials announced in June they were moving the event up two months.
The BLM cited the poor condition of the wild horses, and the high numbers of horses roaming in the 190,000-acre PEDHMA.
To improve these conditions, the federal agency is seeking to remove 1,050 wild horses from the area.
But wild horse advocates say the horses are not in poor condition, and that cattle are causing more problems on the range than the horses.
Earlier this month, a small group of scientists and wild-horse advocates flew with the nonprofit EcoFlight over the rugged landscape southeast of Rangely.
EcoFlight takes policymakers, journalists and advocates to the sky to view problems from a broader perspective.
In this case, the passengers wanted to get a look at the wild horses before the BLM began using helicopters and horseback riders to drive and trap them.
Delia Malone was on the flight. She’s an ecologist and serves on the board of the Sierra Club’s Colorado chapter.
She has been evaluating habitats and endangered species on the Western Slope for decades.
“I have something of a rather intimate knowledge of what’s impacting the landscape and what’s impacting the health of the land,” Malone said.
And she feels wild horses are part of the Western identity.
“The wild horses exemplify the West. They are the spirit of the landscape,” Malone said. “And the BLM is set on destroying that spirit.”
The BLM estimates that nearly 1,400 horses roam in this herd-management area.
But the agency determined in a 2021 environmental assessment that there should be only 135 to 235 horses in the area to maintain an ecological balance.
That assessment gives them the authority to conduct this gather operation.
However, Malone disputes whether the BLM’s maximum limit of 235 horses in this herd-management area is appropriate and questions the need to remove wild horses from the land.
“In my opinion, as an ecologist, the impact that wild horses have on the landscape is minimal,” Malone said.
Erik Molvar was on the EcoFlight plane with Malone.
He’s a wildlife biologist and executive director of Western Watersheds Project, which works to protect Western lands from what it calls “the destructive effects of livestock grazing.”
After the flight over the management area, Molvar said horses are not the problem there.
“The livestock industry commonly scapegoats wild horses for rangeland degradation that’s actually caused by cattle and sheep,” Molvar said. “And it’s not just the livestock industry. It’s the Bureau of Land Management.”
Chris Maestas is a spokesperson for BLM’s Northwest Colorado District.
He didn’t speak to the claim about the BLM scapegoating wild horses, but he pointed out that the BLM has to balance the wild-horse population in the PEDHMA with other uses, including oil and gas wells.
“You have resource development,” Maestas said. “You have recreation. You have other wildlife animals, and so you have all these decisions to take into account and come up with the best decisions for the land as well as the management.”
Laurine Lassalle/Aspen JournalismThis graphic, provided by Laurine Lassalle of Aspen Journalism, shows the locations of oil and gas wells in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area. Data was provided by the Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
But Molvar, who is with Western Watersheds Project, says cattle are harder on the environment than wild horses are.
“The cattle, in particular, concentrate along the lush bottomlands and near water,” Molvar said. “They have a disproportionate impact, a disproportionate forage removal right along the streams, right along the valley bottoms.”
Molvar says horses are similar to elk and bison in their grazing.
“They’re not concentrating in those riparian areas,” Molvar said. “They’re spreading their impacts across a variety of habitats. They’re wide ranging. They use the country. They don’t avoid steep country the way cattle do.”
Regardless, the BLM’s environmental assessment says that “adjusting livestock use” in the herd-management area was outside the “scope of this analysis.”
Malone traveled to the herd-management area earlier this month and walked in areas where horses tend to congregate.
She wrote a report that says most of the lowland areas near water sources are severely damaged because of cattle and that upland habitats provide enough forage to support the wild horses.
“And in my ecological perspective, the horses are not the problem,” Malone said. “It’s the cattle and the sheep that are severely damaging the landscape.”
Malone’s report also disputes other claims from the BLM.
BLM assessments of the horses this past spring showed that they ranged from “very thin” to “moderately fleshy” on the agency’s scoring system. About 90% of horses ranked somewhere in between.
But Malone said that the wild horses she saw and photographed, along with photographer Scott Wilson, were “vigorous and reproductively successful.”
Photos of the horses from the BLM and Malone paint very different pictures of the health of the herd.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has also decided to weigh in.
The BLM, however, is a federal agency, so Polis can only make requests and suggestions.
The BLM decided to move forward with the drive-trapping July 15.
“We appreciate the governor’s involvement, said Maestas, the BLM spokesperson. “The BLM leadership is in frequent communication with the governor’s office on ways to improve wildlife management.”
The reasons for this gather operation remain disputed.
Molvar says when the facts on the ground are contested, it’s difficult to have informed debates.
“There should be broad agreement that everybody can agree that these horses are in bad condition or the range is in bad condition or that the range condition problems are due to wild horses or they’re due to cattle,” Molvar said. “But there it seems like it’s really difficult to drive that kind of consensus.”
Although the rangeland conditions and the health of the wild horses are disputed, their fate has already been determined.
Gather operations are ongoing. According to the BLM’s updates online, 430 wild horses were gathered as of Thursday morning.
Three-hundred forty-six wild horses have been shipped to a holding facility in Axtell, Utah. And the rest are in a holding pen.
Some will be sold or adopted. Others will be boarded long term, and some will be sterilized and released back onto the range.
The BLM says that rates of adoption and sales of wild horses have historically not kept up with the growth of their populations, so many of these horses will spend the rest of their lives in confined grazing areas.